J Dilla has contributed an incredible amount of genius to the Hip-Hop and R&B industries; so much so that he is and will forever be considered one of the greatest music producers of all time. With his vast discography of timeless tracks with legends such as Erykah Badu, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and Common, his supernatural ability to piece together samples and loops from scratch, and his integration of feeling and passion into every beat, Dilla’s influence will continue to transcend every era of music for a lifetime. Here are some of the masterpieces you may or may not have known Dilla helped bring to life:
You know you’re working with a cold producer when you can’t help but pay more attention to the beat of a track rather than the lyrics, and that’s exactly what’s displayed in “Starz.” Featured on the Madlib-Jay Dee collaboration, Champion Sound, and using a sample from Starcastle’s “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” Dilla’s incomparable production skills on this track are second-to-none.
Erykah on Dilla: “He let me pick out some records and there were a lot of things I’d never heard before in my life. One of them was a Tarika Blue record and I was like, ‘Wow, this is beautiful,’ and it became ‘Didn’t Cha Know.’ Not only did he let me pick the record, he let me pick the spot in the record and taught me how to sample the portion of the song. He was very humble. He wasn’t like: ‘This is my lab.’ He was: ‘If you like this, you can probably do it.’ And that’s where I got my first sampling lesson, from Dilla.”
Sampling just bits and pieces from “Swahililand” by Ahmad Jamal, Dilla was able to transform this De La Soul record into something intoxicating.
“When I heard it — it’s crazy ‘cause the first person I played it for was Dave from De La Soul. I remember the beat, the first beat we heard, we just kept playin’ it, kept playin’ it. And I called him, I was like “Yo dawg, you are f*ckin nuts. N****s need to hear you.” – Q-Tip reflecting on Dilla
Released as the first single from their sophomore album, Labcabincalifornia, “Runnin’” quickly became one of The Pharcyde’s most popular songs. Its success is partly due to Dilla’s sampled rendition of Stan Getz’s “Saudade Vem Correndo,” as it provided the hit single with an upbeat tempo that’s gotten everybody going since 1995.
Speaking of hits, no one can deny the impact “The Light” has had on Common’s career, let alone hip-hop and the hearts of many women around the nation. Said to be his public adoration of then-girlfriend, legendary R&B singer Erykah Badu, this classic love song couldn’t be more perfectly backed by anything other than a Dilla beat. A carefully crafted combination of Henry Kaiser, Detroit Emeralds, and Bobby Caldwell is what infuses this track with that authentic, Brown Sugar-type love we all yearn for.
A fitting example of Jay Dee’s musical influence in neo soul can be heard in The Roots’ “Dynamite!” from Things Fall Apart. This track features some of his signature funky rhythms paired with a couple elements from “Indiana” by Zoot Sims and Bucky Pizzarelli feat. Buddy Rich. His rhythms also serve as the theme for other classic albums such as Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which were all being produced around the same time and helped shape the classic neo soul sound.
This hit was released as ATCQ’s first single from their fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life in 1996. Going in a different musical direction, Tammy Lucas’ velvet vocals were chosen to grace the hook and laced with Dilla’s hand at a contemporary sound and sampling from Gary Burton’s “I’m Your Pal.” This smooth record earned them a Grammy nomination and ultimate fan approval.
Dilla joined Q-Tip on his debut solo album, Amplified, to develop the second breakout single that would eventually hit the charts as #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #21 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. All it took was Q-Tip’s effortless flow & an electrifying Dilla beat that would literally “breathe and stop” with it.
“Special girl, real good girl. Biggest thing in my itty bitty world.”
There isn’t a person in this world who doesn’t recognize this song the minute the beat drops. And if there is, promptly demand them to exit stage left. “Vivrant Thing” is one of those club bangers that is GUARANTEED to get everyone on the dance floor. Premiering in 1999, J Dilla did what he does best to heighten Q-Tip’s solo career. Like a surgeon, he reconstructed one sound (Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “I Wanna Say”) into an entirely new creation that only he could envision and correctly execute. I think it’s safe to add “J Dilla, M.D.” to his long list of aliases.
Let it first be said that whenever there’s at least one Soulquarian on a record, the listener is in for quite a treat. However, “So Far To Go” (included in Dilla’s third album, The Shining, released posthumously in 2006 and Common’s Finding Forever in 2007) blessed us with three, putting it on a purely iconic level. Common’s soultry voice rhyming about what it’s like to be deep in love and raw synchronization with that special “brown sugar mixed with cinnamon,” whilst being accompanied by D’Angelo’s breathy and comforting vocal delivery echoing throughout and along Dilla’s slightly hard-hitting, yet relaxing melody is what defines this classic as that of the ultimate male trifecta. This very melody is actually what makes the song so special, as it is a re-use of Dilla’s “Bye” on his second studio album, Donuts. “Bye,” with sampling from the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight,” is one of the last instrumentals the beatsmith created before passing away on February 10, 2006, and one of the most sonically heartbreaking on the album. Do yourself a favor and revisit “So Far To Go,” especially at the 4:26 mark, to appreciate not only what it’s like to be in love, but what a blessing J Dilla was and is to music.